The story is about as gruesome as it gets: "Back in 1612, a French expedition of 500 colonists arrived by ship in northern Brazil, as part of an ongoing wave of European colonial powers looking for sugar, gold, and other riches," Ashkan Sepahvand, a post-colonial research fellow at the LGBTQ Schwules Museum in Berlin, told me. "They set up a mission, named Saint-Louis after then ruler King Louis IX, in the northeastern coastal region of Maranhão."
Missionaries accompanied the colonists, Sepahvand said, with the intention of teaching natives the proper Christian way of living. The goal was to "purify the earth of its evils" and "extinguish sin" among the native population—one of which was sodomy. "Indeed, the word 'faggot' comes from these times, a reference to the small pieces of wood that would be used to light the executing fires," Sepahvand said.
In 1614, a Tupi man known as "Tibira" was sentenced to death for the crime of sodomy. He was to be executed in a public spectacle, to serve as a local object lesson: that same-sex sexuality was no longer going to be tolerated. And so Tibira was strapped in front of a cannon and blown to pieces. "But only after he had been baptized," said Sepahvand. "In their apparent 'benevolence,' the missionaries wanted to make sure that upon death, Tibira would arrive in heaven and there could choose to join the male or the female group of angels singing God's praise." Hallelujah, indeed.
The reason we know about this spectacular murder is because a French Capuchin monk passing through Maranhão recorded the execution in his travel diary. Yves D'Evreux's account is the only record of Tibira's execution. Naturally, his short report was quickly forgotten; it's just one of innumerous examples of monstrosities committed by European colonialists and the Catholic Church in Brazil and beyond. Four centuries later, however, something unusual happened: A gay activist group in Bahia, also in northeastern Brazil, came across this incident as part of its research into local history. The director of the Grupo Gay da Bahia and one of Brazil's leading gay rights activists, Luiz Mott, decided to put Tibira's death back in the spotlight a few years ago, starting a campaign to highlight him as the first documented case of homophobic murder in Latin America, and thus, the first homosexual "martyr" within the region.
Mott's goal is to get the Catholic Church to officially recognize Tibira as a "queer saint." The campaign has made headlines across Brazil, and, last December, Mott successfully lobbied for the erection of a monument to Tibira in São Luis, Maranhão.
His campaign for martyrdom is, of course, is almost certainly destined to fail—a political act more than anything. Nevertheless, Mott continues to spread the gospel of Tibira's story; he has donated part of his organization's archive to the Schwules Museum, including a pamphlet it published in 2014 to mark the fourth centenary of the execution featuring the only known visual representation of Tibira on the cover.
The Bahia brochure caught Sepahvand's eye as he prepared to curate a Schwules exhibition called Odarodle: An imaginary their_story of naturepeoples, 1535–2017, currently on display at the museum, that aimed to re-read LGBTQ history from a post-colonial perspective. (Full disclosure: I'm an employee of the Schwules Museum and a member of its board of directors.)
For the exhibition, Sepahvand commissioned a new work inspired by Tibira's story by Brazilian Japanese artist Lucas Odahara. Entitled Their Sounds Echoing Between You and Me, it consists of hanging panels of blue-and-white tile, depicting fragments of drawings and sketches produced around the time of Tibira's execution: "17th century studies of Brazilian landscapes, flora, and native inhabitants by colonial-era painters, details of cannons and soldiers from Western war paintings of the time," according to Odahara's artist statement. The piece is meant to invoke a "visual echo chamber," creating "a body cut up into pieces and scattered across the scene"—much like Tibira was by the colonialists who detested his sexuality.
"Stories from the first centuries of colonization in Brazil are very fascinating to me," Odahara told me. "Just like Tibira's story, they exist only through the European perspective. So there is this obvious problem: How can we think about that moment in time without following and repeating a single-perspective narrative?"
While Tibira's story may never be fully known, it seems more relevant today than ever. "Especially since [Brazil's] parliamentary 'coup d'état' in 2016, we have been witnessing an escalating tension concerning the position of indigenous peoples in the country," Odahara said. He said Tibira's story "speaks to me as a repetition of history," citing a recent proposed constitutional amendment making claims on land protected as indigenous territory, reports of uncontacted indigenous tribes being murdered by gold miners, and the censorship of queer artworks and exhibitions by right-wing evangelicals. Those aren't to mention the censorship of a play in Jundiaí earlier this month in which the role of Jesus was given to a trans actress, or the fact that last week, a Brazilian court ruled that homosexuality might be treated by psychologists as a "disease" in the future.
These events and more force the question: Why would anyone want a blessing from the church for a figure like Tibira? "The strategy to re-frame Tibira as a 'saint' certainly reveals the political power of counter-appropriation—to use the language of the Church against itself," observed Sepahvand. But he noted that the effects of colonialism in contemporary Brazil are incredibly complex; "the distinction between oppressors and the oppressed are blurry, if not even contradictory at times," he said.
Others are more critical. Mott and his group "want validation and acceptance from exactly the institutions that caused all the horror and homophobia in the first place," journalist José Gabriel Navarro, who interviewed Mott for Brazilian LGBTQ newspapers back in 2014, wrote me. "It's as if they can only be happy, and feel fully accepted, if the former oppressors give them their blessing, which will never happen."
It's that complexity that makes political activism and artistic expression about colonialism so tricky. Sepahvand said his exhibition aims to do more than merely highlight injustices wrought against indigenous populations. "Simply demonstrating 'the wrong' doesn't change much," he said. Instead, the task is to empower people "who somehow feel 'othered'—whether racially, sexually, or through class difference." His aim is to re-script power structures for "unfamiliar, surreal, or queer" elements of society, a process that "confuses people, or makes them pissed off even." But that's a good thing, according to Sepahvand, "because it throws a bone at our contemporary need for speedy, bite-size, dumbed-down 'understanding'" of colonial injustice.
Mott, for his part, was smiling happily as he stood next to the monument he helped establish last December, next to the image of a generic "Indian" cast in stone, under which an inscription read: "The first victim of homophobia in Brazil."